The Abbey of Saint Radegund is at the top of the Coombe Valley, at Poulton, on a minor road from Dover to Folkestone. Now a working farm, the Abbey gives its name, with a slightly different spelling, to a part of Dover – St Radigunds.
St Radegund, to whom the Abbey was dedicated, was a princess born in 518 AD. Her father, Berthaire, was the pagan King of Thuringia in Southern Germany but when she was about ten her country was invaded by the Franks. Radegund was taken prisoner by King Clothier (or Lothier in some accounts) and he decided that Radegund should be groomed for the role of a royal Christian wife. Radegund acquiesced and took her studies seriously.
When she grew up, not only was Radegund accomplished but also very beautiful and Clothier, a notorious womaniser, decided to make her his fifth wife. Radegund, by all accounts, accepted her position meekly but increasingly devoted herself to great charitable works. Notably, she founded a hospital for lepers and persons ‘afflicted with the most nauseous distempers’, nursing them herself. She was also very pious and it was reputed that during Lent, Radegund wore a shift of haircloth with iron chains and collars and even hot plates of iron under her robes. She also abstained from eating flesh, fish, eggs and fruit.
About six years after their marriage, Clothier had Radegund’s brother murdered and this was probably the last straw for the young queen. Albeit, instead of loudly protesting, she ‘quietly removed herself from Court’ and sought help of Bishop Medard of Noyon, who was later canonised. The Bishop conferred on her the veil, made her a deaconess and Radegund retired to a religious house at Poitiers, France.
Clothier, however, demanded Radegund’s return and was about to try force when Germain, the Bishop of Paris (again later canonised), persuaded Clothier to leave his wife alone. In 557 Radegund built the monastery of the Holy Cross at Poitiers for which, twelve years later, she obtained, from Emperor Justin I, a large fragment of the true cross-encased in rich reliquary. Radegund’s monastery, for both monks and nuns, became a centre of learning. Radegund died peacefully on 13 August 587 and was buried in the crypt at Poitiers.
The Abbey of St Radegund, in the ancient parish of Poulton, was one of two English houses colonised by the mother abbey of the Premonstratensian Order at Prémontré, Picardy, northern France. Commonly known as the White Canons, after the colour of their habits, the Order was founded in 1120 and followed a particularly austere interpretation of the rules of St Augustine.
These rules govern chastity, poverty, obedience, apportionment of labours, fraternal charity, fasting and abstinence, care of the sick and prayer, amongst many other things. The community’s life revolved around common prayer and the celebration of the Eucharist – in essence, consecrated the wafers and wine become the real presence of Christ i.e. the physical presence (Transubstantiation) so kneeling before them is reverencing the divine body and blood, (explanation provided by Fr. Peter Sherred of Dover).
It would appear, from the scant evidence that is available, that the first Abbot, Hugh founded the Abbey about 1192. Walter and Emma Hacket, with the agreement of William and Stephen de Poltone, granted the land in what was then known as Bradasole where the Abbey was built.
Later Robert de Poltone granted the manor of Poulton and Hamo de Crevequer and his wife Maud, granted the advowson – the right to nominate the minister – of Alkham and the chapel of Capel to the Abbey. Other grants included the churches of Shepherdswell and of Postling, the manor of Coombe, the site of the mill at Crabble and by Hubert de Burgh (1160-1243) the churches of Portslade and Aldrington, Sussex.
Royal patronage included a further 100 acres of land at Bradasole by Richard I (1189-1199); 100 acres of land in the village of River by King John (1199-1216) on 12 May 1204 and the church of River on 26 July 1215. The latter grant was made on the assumption that a new Abbey would be built at River, but this did not happen. From 16 March 1227, Henry III (1216-1272) gave the rent of 20-shillings a year he received from his mill at River. The same day as he granted the Abbey its Charter of Confirmation. In 1315, Edward II (1307-1327) granted a further Charter of Confirmation.
Like St Martin-le-Grand in Dover, St Radegund’s was not free from inter-denominational strife. In 1303, Abbot William and some of his canons were accused of stealing a horse, saddle, bridle, prayer book and girdle to the value of £10. In addition, a purse containing 48-shillings (£2.40p) together with a papal bull authorising the removal of one of his canons, Solomon de Wengham, from the Abbey of Bayham, near Frant, East Sussex.
In their defence, Abbot William said that they were on the road at Ash, near Wingham acting in pursuance of a mandate from the Abbot of Prémontré, which stated that as Solomon de Wengham had been found guilty of being rebellious, he should receive his punishment at St Radegund Abbey. The Abbot then went on to say that the prayer book actually belonged to the offending canon, while the purse only contained 4-shillings 9-pence (24p). he had offered the money, goods and the horse to the Abbot of Bayham, but he had declined to accept them. The Abbot of Bayham, however, later changed his mind about the horse! The Jury accepted Abbot William’s explanation and the defendants were allowed to go free.
By 1500, it would appear that many of the austere Augustinian rules were lacking if a report from the Abbot of Bayham is to be believed. His visitation took place on 3 October that year and states that John Newton, the Abbot of St Radegund’s, frequented taverns on Sundays and feast days, used bad language and that the Abbey was in a poor state of repair plus £30 in debt. However, in 1535, the possessions of the Abbey were valued at £142 8-shillings 9-pence (£142 44p) while outgoings only amounted to approximated £44, which questions the findings of the visitation.
However, it was the 1536 Act for the Dissolution of the lesser Monasteries that brought to an end the monastic life at St Radegund’s Abbey. On 10 May 1537 the site was leased to Richard Kays for £13 10-shillings 8-pence (£13.53p) a year and on 31 July 1538 it was granted to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
In the late eighteenth century, local historian, Reverend John Lyon, wrote that the chapel was fitted out as a farmhouse, barn and other husbandry conveniences and that the remainder of the site had been left to crumble away. He noted that still standing was the principle entrance, ‘a tall well preserved thick-walled gateway that led through to the tower.’ This was built of flint and 40-feet high and wide and it could be seen that it had accommodated two storeys with a middle room in each, about 17-feet square and smaller apartments on each side.
Between the tower and the farmhouse, were two quadrangles, the first 40-feet by 27-feet and the second 65-feet wide (length not given). Reverend Lyon described other ruins of the old Abbey that could still be seen but was particularly adamant that the tower should be preserved for posterity. Since then a number of archaeological surveys of the site have been undertaken providing plans of the old Abbey and drawings of what it may have looked like.
Edwin Farley, who became one of Dover’s most outstanding Mayors and eventually knighted, ran a Creamery in Townwall Street with branches in Ashentree Lane and Park Place. He obtained the milk and butter from Hougham Court, Elvington Court and St Radegund’s Abbey (spelt Radigund in his advert), dairy farms. The cows from all of these farms were certified to be free of tuberculosis a major health scourge at that time.
Since then a number of archaeological surveys of the site have been undertaken providing plans of the old Abbey and drawings of what it may have looked like. Back in 1920, the Abbey, along with 300 acres of ground, raised a modicum of national interest when they fetched £6,000 at an auction. However, 20 years later, during World War II (1939-1945), the site became of military importance when the first Heavy ack-ack regiment set up five sites sites numbering from D1 to D5 and installing 3-inch open-sight guns, across Dover. D4 was on the high ground to the north of St Radigund’s Abbey.
About the same time the Abbey enjoyed national publicity because of a fictional character. In 1908, newly launched boys’ magazine, Marvel, appeared on the stands. Author, Charles Hamilton, using the pen name Frank Richards, introduced to the world, William George Bunter, a pupil in the Remove class, at the fictional Greyfriars public school. Each week the magazine published a feature length Greyfriars story centering mainly on the hapless Billy Bunter. However, due to a decline in circulation and paper shortages of the War, the magazine folded in 1940 but published in one of the last editions was a map showing the location of Greyfriars School. It was already known to be located somewhere in Kent, but the map indicated that it could be at St Radegund’s Abbey, near Dover!
The ruins of the Abbey are still there and can be seen from the road as they are within a working farm. The ruins of the rival Bayham Abbey still stand and are an official English Heritage site.
- Dover Mercury: 25 August 2005